To boost their political power, San Diego’s beach neighborhoods band together in a ‘coastal coalition’
The group is focused on street vendors, beach crime, bonfires and getting a fair shake from City Hall for hosting millions of tourists.
Leaders of San Diego’s beach neighborhoods have begun speaking and lobbying with a unified voice on controversial issues like beach bonfires, vacation rentals, crime in coastal parks and street vendors on boardwalks.
Calling themselves the Coastal Coalition, the leaders of several town councils and other volunteer organizations say they have more power when they fight together for policy changes that benefit all the city’s coastal neighborhoods.
“We all have many concerns in common and we’ve found that we’re much more effective when we work together,” said Catharine Douglass, chair of the La Jolla Town Council’s Safety Committee.
While Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach and La Jolla face different challenges and don’t always have the same priorities, members of the Coastal Coalition say they share some key concerns unique to the coast.
Those include coping with millions of tourists every summer, concerns about beach parties that get out of control and struggles with decaying infrastructure in some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.
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“Our needs are much greater than most other neighborhoods because of all the tourists, but we don’t get extra money from the city for that,” said Larry Webb, president of the Mission Beach Town Council.
Lobbying City Hall to change what it considers a funding disparity is among the issues the Coastal Coalition plans to tackle next, Webb said.
“We’re getting some respect from the city,” Webb said. “We’ll continue to explore other areas where we have similar concerns and solutions we want the city to consider.”
Charlie Nieto, president of the Pacific Beach Town Council, said the Coastal Coalition is a fantastic idea that should probably have happened many years ago.
“For the longest time, coastal organizations operated on their own,” Nieto said. “Coming together like this makes us look like a stronger set of communities. And it does make us stronger.”
Councilmember Joe LaCava, who was a longtime La Jolla neighborhood leader before he was elected to the City Council in 2020, said coastal neighborhood leaders have met less formally in the past to discuss issues they’ve had in common.
But he said those meetings were more about quietly comparing notes so they could be on the same page. The Coastal Coalition has taken things to a much higher level by voluntarily moving into the spotlight.
“This change may be a reflection of the people who are in charge of these groups now,” LaCava said. “They want to create a brand for themselves.”
LaCava, who represents La Jolla and Pacific Beach on the City Council, said the new coalition is making his job easier on some key issues.
“Each of these communities has a little different flavor, so it’s great when they tell us clearly what they want with one collective voice,” he said. “It really is helpful when different groups come together to wrestle internally for what they want to fight for.”
Unifying San Diego’s coastal neighborhoods in one of the city’s nine council districts has been something redistricting commissions have tried to avoid, contending that such a district could become too narrowly focused on coastal issues.
The most recent redistricting commission divided coastal neighborhoods more equally between Districts 1 and 2.
From 2011 to 2021, La Jolla had been in District 1 and the rest of the coast in District 2. The 2021 redistricting commission shifted Pacific Beach into District 1.
Councilmember Jennifer Campbell, who represents Mission Beach and Ocean Beach in District 2, declined to comment on the coalition.
The coalition includes town councils in Ocean Beach, Mission Beach and Pacific Beach, along with the Ocean Beach MainStreet Association, the safety committee of the La Jolla Town Council, the La Jolla Shores Association, the La Jolla Community Planning Association, La Jolla Parks and Beaches and a neighborhood watch group for Pacific and Mission beaches.
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The idea for the coalition began when a police captain gave some coastal neighborhood leaders a piece of advice in late 2021.
“He said to get all the communities speaking with the same voice,” said Webb, the Mission Beach leader. “I started making phone calls and getting people together.”
The primary motivation then was the city’s lack of an ordinance regulating street vendors, a group of new entrepreneurs whose presence opponents said was damaging the look and feel of beach boardwalks and coastal parks by clogging them and making them more chaotic.
When San Diego finally adopted long-awaited comprehensive street-vendor legislation last March, city officials frustrated coastal leaders by deciding the new law wouldn’t take effect until the California Coastal Commission approved it, which was expected to take months.
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Coming together as the Coastal Coalition for the first time, the neighborhood leaders lobbied city officials to skip that approval process, threatening to petition the commission to declare the new law outside of its purview.
City officials ultimately decided last fall to skip the state approval and allow the law to take effect — a decision for which the coalition takes credit.
“We were big motivators for the city to bypass the Coastal Commission and put the law into effect,” Webb said.
Next came a successful coalition-led effort to get the City Council last year to restrict wood bonfires on beaches unless they are inside designated city fire rings.
The goal is to reduce burn injuries from smoldering embers underneath sand, improve air quality in beach neighborhoods and clarify rules for beach users and police seeking to crack down on illegal fires.
Critics say the changes will make beach bonfires too expensive for many and contend an education campaign would have been better than a crackdown.
The coalition was just taking shape in January 2022, when the city agreed to close nearly a dozen coastal parks and parking areas at night to help reduce gang activity, late-night parties, illegal bonfires and unauthorized camping.
The parks and parking lots, which span from La Jolla to Ocean Beach, would either be physically closed by installing new security gates or posted with signs announcing the overnight closures.
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While Webb said the coalition can’t take credit for the closures, which were proposed before the coalition came together, he said the group plans to lobby the Coastal Commission this spring to allow the closures to take effect.
The situation is similar with the city’s short-term vacation rental legislation, which the council approved in early 2021. The coalition plans to watch closely how it is enforced.
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The coalition plans the same with the new vendor law.
“No matter how good the legislation, it won’t mean anything without enforcement,” said Nieto, the Pacific Beach leader.
Group leaders acknowledge they may face moments where they have to take different sides on a key issue. What’s good for wealthier La Jolla isn’t necessarily always going to be good for more bohemian Ocean Beach or touristy Mission Beach, they said.
But they have a plan.
“We will prioritize common ground and stay away from issues where we have differences,” Nieto said.